Miki Mistrati has been documenting child labour in West Africa’s cocoa industry since 2007 – and he’s in therapy.
“You never get used to this,” he says. “I want people to understand what they are a part of. If you want to buy a cheap chocolate bar supporting child labour that’s your decision, but don’t tell me that you didn’t know.”
Research accepted by the cocoa industry says that 1.56 million children are working in cocoa production in Ivory Coast and Ghana. According to Miki Mistrati’s latest documentary film The Chocolate War, a high proportion of them have been trafficked from neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali.
It’s important to understand the hazards involved, “because there is no role in cocoa production which is safe for children,” Miki Mistrati says. “Not one of those 1.56 million children should be doing this work, regardless of what the cocoa industry tells you.”
The industry says modern slavery or forced labour, and child labour, are not the same. It accepts 1.56 million instances of child labour in Ghana and Ivory Coast, according to the Norc Report, 2020, but acknowledges 30,000 instances of modern slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index, 2018.
Children as young as eight are risking snake bites and using machetes
“This is what really pi*ses me off,” says Miki Mistrati. “No-one can work in a cocoa plantation without doing hazardous work. When you harvest, you need a machete.
“Then you have to break the pods, with a machete. Then the beans need to be removed from the plantation in huge bags, heavy loads, to be taken to a drying area.
“You work with pesticides. There’s lot of brown snakes, mambas, and snake bites happen quite often in the bush. What can a kid do on a cocoa plantation that’s appropriate?”
It’s work he has seen performed by children as young as eight, in a dozen trips to Africa. In law, children are unable to consent to inappropriate, hazardous work. And the children he has met are unpaid. This amounts to slavery, he says.
“I’m sick and tired of repeating myself. The children who work on these farms are not working an hour or two to help out after school. That’s not the reality.”
“They won’t break Terry – in my opinion he’s a modern hero”
The Chocolate War premiered at the Copenhagen Documentary Festival on March 23. It follows human rights lawyer Terrence Collingsworth in a classic David and Goliath set up, as he attempts to sue cocoa giants for their reliance on child labour.
“I’ve heard the industry is paying one thousand US dollars per hour per lawyer. And I know that Nestlé alone had eight lawyers,” says Miki Mistrati.
Times that by seven cocoa giants, over multiple hearings since 2005. “They have spent millions,” he adds. “All of that resource against one guy.
“They won’t break Terry. I’ve been with him so many times, in so many different countries under pressure. I can tell you this man is a fighter.
“And in my opinion, he is a modern hero. I call him Jason Bourne from the films because he has this built-in desire to fight for people’s rights.
“The Supreme Court issued a new standard for this tort that would require Nestlé and Cargill to kidnap children in the US and force them to work in Ivory Coast”
“Believe me, he doesn’t get paid. This is pro bono. He needs to fund this by private donations. I am stunned that he can continue doing this without getting any salary.
“Every expense, he has to find somewhere. He has a life mission to try to save as many children from slavery as possible.”
Terrence Collingsworth has been fighting his war since uncovering six cases of child slavery in 2004 in Ivory Coast. Six boys from Mali testified on camera that they were abducted at the age of 12 and taken to plantations to work without pay.
He and his litigation partner Paul Hoffman pursued the original case for 16 years before the US Supreme Court in 2021 imposed a new standard on the law they used, the Alien Tort Statute.
“The Conservative pro-business Supreme Court has invented a standard that would have required Nestlé and Cargill to kidnap children in the US, take them to Ivory Coast and force them to work, for the statute to apply,” Terrence Collingsworth explains.
“I don’t have special skills, just drive two hours into the bush and you’ll find child labour all over the place”
Anticipating an unfavorable ruling by the Supreme Court, he filed a new case on behalf of eight formerly enslaved children in 2021 under a more recent law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. That case, which names Nestlé, Cargill, Mars, Hershey, Mondelez, Barry Callebaut, and Olam as defendants, is proceeding in the US federal court.
In the film, we see that Cargill buys cocoa beans from plantations and sells them to Nestlé. Invoices found by a Malian human rights advocate prove the companies know of child labour in the supply chain, says Miki Mistrati.
His documentary follows Terrence Collingsworth and two interns from Paul Hoffman’s firm as they visit a Cargill cooperative in Ivory Coast, learning that “UTZ-certified” and “Fairtrade” labels on chocolate bars often mean nothing.
“I ask myself how can the cocoa companies defend the trafficking and enslavement of children in 2022?” Miki Mistrati says. “Why don’t they make a difference instead of lying and saying they don’t know anything?
“Of course they know. I’m not a special person with special skills. Take a car, go to Abijdan, drive two hours into the bush and it’s all over the place. There is no gated environment. You just drive into the bush and go to random places – and you find children everywhere.
“Don’t insult my intelligence, of course the cocoa companies know”
“In the film you will see a chief of a big co-operative in Ivory Coast. They supply only Cargill. He represents one thousand farmers.
“Terry asks him if he knows the farmers in his co-operative. The chief does, he has the names, the co-ordinates of their farms.
“How can the chocolate companies say they don’t know where the farms are that their beans come from? Don’t insult my intelligence, of course they know.
“Nestlé will say ‘oh we buy all our cocoa beans from Cargill, so we don’t know where Cargill gets it from.’
“That’s running away from the responsibility in 2022. There is an EU law that means you need to be aware of the whole supply chain.
“Local campaigners in Africa will tell you that Fairtrade cocoa beans don’t exist”
“So when you buy something from a middleman you need to know where he or she got it from.”
There are hopes that as this is law is enforced, new approaches to labelling will make it easier for consumers to avoid slavery-tainted products.
“Local campaigners in Africa will tell you that Fairtrade beans in cocoa don’t exist. There are 800,000 farmers. The farms are small, family farms, between four and eight hectares. They can only harvest a few bags of beans, and then all the beans are mixed up when they are sold.
“There are a lot of locals fighting against their own country’s corruption. They are doing a good job. It’s not because people in those countries don’t care.”
It was labelling that lead Miki Mistrati to the issue in the first place.
“In 2007 as a consumer I wondered why all chocolate bars weren’t Fairtrade,” he explains. “That was the start of my investigation – to find out what is behind the production of chocolate.
“Six per cent of the price of a chocolate bar goes to the farmer”
“I found out much later that Fairtrade is pretty meaningless. I can’t stress enough how unfortunate I think it is, because it would be so great if there was a quite clear alternative in reality, so I know that if I buy this chocolate the farmer will get a decent payment.
“When I was in Ivory Coast with Terry I realised that lots of farmers are leaving Fairtrade because they do not get enough of a premium to make it worthwhile. They need to spend time doing administration rather than cultivating the crops.
“They can’t afford that. So, they are going back to more conventional production, which is a shame, but I do understand.
“At the end of the day six per cent of the price of a chocolate bar goes to the farmer. And from that amount he needs to employ people. You can’t do it by yourself. And they use a lot of pesticides – that costs money.
“So that’s why child labour is the cheapest way to get money to feed your family.”
Chocolate labels should say ‘This might have been produced by child labour’
He says the only solution is for the chocolate giants to pay a fair price for their beans, making child labour unnecessary.
“We should have a law demanding a label saying ‘This might have been produced by child labour’ and see if people buy it. That would force the industry to change the way they produce.
“We need to re-think the way we produce food anyway, worldwide, change the whole production system, otherwise our planet will fall apart within not many decades.”
Effective, well-regulated labelling is key, given the dishonesty he’s witnessed from chocolate companies, he says.
“In the public domain the chocolate companies say they do a lot to prevent child labour, to fight against child trafficking. That’s on the record,” he explains.
“When they go into court, suddenly they have forgotten everything. There they say, ‘We have no links with the cocoa plantations. We just buy from middlemen.’
“In court the companies say something which isn’t true. That’s shocking to me”
“And it’s horrible to witness. I was sitting in the court room thinking, ‘Is this for real?’
“Very professional, well-educated people, their lawyers, are willing to say something that isn’t true, and they know better. That’s what is shocking to me.”
Nestlé as a publicly listed company is in theory answerable to investors. However, this is not the case with Cargill which is largely family owned. With revenue in 2019 of $113.5 billion it is the biggest food company in the world.
Witnessing millions of dollars being made available to lawyers, who deny what Miki Mistrati has seen with his own eyes, while abducted children work for nothing, and cocoa giants withhold fair prices, is a web of contradictions that would tax anyone’s peace of mind.
The galvanising effect of Terrence Collingsworth’s determination on Miki Mistrati is clear. “He’s not going to stop until he stops breathing,” he says. “I fell in love with this character, and I’m not going to walk away from the subject either.”
For screenings of The Chocolate War, keep an eye on the website of Miki Mistrati’s production company.
Ahead of Easter in 2021 Terrence Collingsworth, Ayn Riggs of Slave Free Chocolate and Paul Schoenmakers, Chief Impact Officer for Tony’s Chocolonely, joined Humphrey Hawksley, BBC foreign correspondent, Carl Schweizer and Juancho Merlin, Founders of Orijin.io and Dan Crossley, CEO of the UK Food Ethics Council at Quota’s event The Ethical Egg hunt, asking just what slave-free options are available on the supermarket shelves.
Take a look at the recording here.